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Émile Zola: “I am waiting for something else. . . .”

November 21, 2016

Émile Zola–quoted from Naturalism on the Stage (1881)—-

“I am waiting for something else. . . .I am waiting for someone to put a man of flesh and bones on the stage, taken from reality, scientifically analyzed, and described without one lie. I am waiting for someone to rid us of fictitious characters, of these symbols of virtue and vice which have no worth as human data. I am waiting for the environment to determine the characters and the characters to act according to the logic of facts combined with the logic of their own dispositions. . . . I am waiting for everyone to throw out the tricks of the trade, the contrived formulas, the tears and superficial laughs. I am waiting for a dramatic work void of declamations, majestic speech, and noble sentiments, to have the unimpeachable morality of truth and to teach us the frightening lesson of sincere investigation.”

Zola may still be waiting. I’ll try to do my part to let him rest. . . .

Playwrights on Playwriting: Arthur Miller

November 4, 2016

“So, there was a kind of confidence underlying this play, a self-disarming quality that was in part born of my belief in the audience as being essentially the same as myself. If I had wanted, then, to put the audience reaction into words, it would not have been ‘What happened next, and why?’ so much as ‘Oh, God, of course!’ ” [Arthur Miller, speaking about Death of a Salesman, quoted in Playwrights on Playwriting]

As I am weaving scenes from a marriage into a play, a modern—or perhaps not so modern—or perhaps timeless—tragedy arising from the intimate preoccupations that precede and ultimately lead to unforgivable betrayal, I myself should heed Miller’s words.

The subject matter may be lofty, the characters and their deeds at least superficially familiar, but the playwright’s intent must be to write to his audience, about themselves. Things they can understand on a deep-seated physical level, a feeling that “This is—or it could be—me.”

No audience wants to be preached at. They want to see themselves, doing what they do in their ordinary lives, making the mistakes they regret, or will regret. Therein lies the drama, or the tragedy.

“Those who do not remember history are condemned to repeat it.” Part Two

September 22, 2016

Here’s a quotation from an insightful book on world history: ”This was a classic example of a weapon _______ was to use increasingly: exaggerating and distorting the view of his opponents, and applying crude labels to them, as though from a position of unique and guaranteed rectitude.”

Feel free to fill in the blank above, with the name of one of the two contenders in this contentious 2016 presidential campaign. This being a non-partisan blog, I leave it to you to figure out whose name—Trump’s or Clinton’s—fits best.

I swear, I don’t know myself whose it should be. In the quotation, however (taken from Geoffrey Hosking’s admirable work on the history of the Soviet Union from within, “The First Socialist Society”) the name is Josef Stalin. Like Hitler, he rose to power within an established, somewhat democratic system.

Science and Poetry: Kin?

September 7, 2016

Marianne Moore: “Do the poet and scientist not work analogously? Both are willing to waste effort. To be hard on himself is one of the main strengths of each. Each is attentive to clues, each must narrow the choice, must strive for precision.”

[quoted from “Writers at Work: The Paris Review Interviews”]

Miss Moore (1878-1972) is of the old school of poets, coming into her own as a poet in the 1920s. But the idea she puts forth here is timeless, even more relevant today when science is deified by some and condemned by others. As is the art poetry itself.

What is the point of either? To dig and dig and dig to find some indelible, incorruptible truth. Often the excavation is pointless, the results negative or at best inconclusive.

Does that mean that the poet or the scientist should cease their endeavours.

Ask any poet, any scientist. Their answer is your answer.

No beast so fierce: Richard III lives, on stage in Almeida’s film

August 16, 2016

In this cinematic Shakespeare’s Richard III from London’s Almeida Theater, the production opens with an open grave, an archaeological dig from which the twisted backbone of the real Richard III held up to light. Sliding glass panels slide over the grave, covering it for the scenes to follow. But the grave is always in sight, open and waiting.

It takes a moment to become accustomed to the black business suits, the starkly modern lighting, and the cell phones, all of them a jarring imposition of the modern on to Shakespeare’s Elizabethan phrasing. But it is only a moment, and we are caught up in a world of treachery, deceit, and hunger for power not so different from the one we inhabit today.

Ralph Fiennes is impeccably cast. From the moment he hobbles onstage, drooling and bent, he is King Richard III, and evil incarnate is not long in showing his face. His brother Edward is the new king, weak of constitution, an easy target for the hunchback who would be king. When minions carry onstage the shrouded bones of King Henry VI, dead like his son Edward the Prince of Wales, by Richard’s hand. The widow Lady Anne (Joanna Vanderham) has entered with the cortege to mourn her loss, and here follows one of the most sexually charged seductions committed to cinema. One mad with grief, one simply insane, they spit and fight with mounting fury, until the one with no reason prevails. There is no consummation here, but Richard has shown his hand—he will stop at nothing to satisfy the hunger of his insatiable desire for dominance.

Every scene that now unfolds reveals the breadth of that hunger, and the depth of his duplicity. The deceit is unrelenting. No one is spared, neither the innocents caught up in his deceit, nor his willing accomplices in all this. His own brother Clarence, his young nephews and heirs to the throne, Lady Anne who he seduced and slew, even his loyal henchmen Hastings and Buckingham, one by one they fall to his hand. Victims innocent or led by their own treachery to Richard’s hand. Only Richmond and Stanley get away.

It is the women who give this play its touches of humanity. They see what the men cannot, and love what no man can. Aislίn McGuckin as Queen Elizabeth, widow of Henry and the mother of Lady Anne, especially stands up to the ogre, face to face and voice to voice in the long and grueling scene that ends in her rape. The monster stops at nothing. Dominance is everything to him, his beginning and his end. This is a lesson for our own times as well.

The claustrophobic set design helps to reinforce this point. Subtle hints abound. A background of round stone wall—the tower of London, the ultimate prison shielded at times by scrims and curtains—lit from a recessed corona above.

One point that was sorely missed was the one possible glimmer of redemption through self-awareness that at least becomes possible in Richard’s final soliloquy, “I am loved by no one, I love no one.” Absent this rare, almost touching possibility, his words become yet another rant of self-pity. The audience is too worn out by his slimy words to care anymore. This monster has no humanity at all, he has become not even just another monster in a cruel world, but a caricature of one.

In the final battle scene, Richmond of the halo of golden hair prevails. Richard fights with all the fury of his madness, but cannot save himself. Three times he offers up his kingdom for a horse, three times he is denied. He falls, face forward, into the waiting grave. England is saved and all will be well.

The film has shown but a few times at the Rafael, its brief run is now ended. It is well worth seeking out, in PBS listings or streaming video if available. It was made for the big screen, and best watched on the largest screen you can find. Its chilling conclusions on the uses of power cannot be overmagnified.

Theatrical Prodduction: Almeida Theatre, London

Artistic Director Rupert Goold

Casting by Joyce Nettles

Run at the Almeida Theater in London June 7-August 6, 2016.

Earth without Art is just “Eh.”

August 9, 2016

Although I’m not that much of a movie-goer—documentaries when appealing ones show up at the Rafael, space-aliens-things-blowing-up-guy-type-adventure flicks with my pal Dave M.—I must confess the very first thing (sometimes only) that I read in the Sunday paper is “Ask Mick.” That would be Mick LaSalle, the SF Chronicle movie-reviewer.

Not the reviews, mind you, though I find (not always) that Mick sees cinema through a particular lens that seems remarkably similar to the one I use myself. In the “Ask Mick” column, however, we get a small glimpse of the inner workings of his intellect, not what he has to say about this or that in a movie, but what stimulates those words. His outlook, so to speak.

Not the minutia of a given film that might drive some commentary, but a way of looking at that same minutia. So one recent Sunday (8.8.16), a reader asked whether Mick’s “criteria” for evaluating a movie, any movie, might have changed over the years.

Here’s what he had to say: “As for changing criteria, I think it would be a mistake to have criteria. To have criteria implies that you have something in mind, some kind of formula or standard against which to measure something as measureless and infinite with possibility as art. That’s not the right wat to encounter the vastness and splendor of creation. You just have to roll with it and see what happens. That leaves open more chance for expansion and discovery.”

Look closely at his words. If you go into a realm of artistic display—a gallery, say, or a play or a poetry reading or a walk into a sculpture garden—with a preconditioned idea of what it is you are going to like, or respond to, or dislike based on that idea—then you have lost something vital in the exchange. “That’s not the right way to encounter the vastness and splendor of creation.”

In all these arts, I know what I like. I know what I want to see, and how casually I may reject something that does not fit into my existing categories. It’s why I haven’t got excited about the newly expanded SF Museum of Modern Art. “You just have to roll with it and see what happens.”

My loss, that.

Because I already know, that when I go I will absolutely see something, the vibrant creative impulse of someone I’ve never heard of in a medium I have little respect for, that will blow me away, that will touch me to my core, that will expand my way of thinking in ways I could never have imagined. “That leaves open more chance for expansion and discovery.”

“those who do not remember history. . . .” Part One

August 2, 2016

You know how the rest of this familiar quotation goes: “Those who do not remember history will be condemned to repeat it.”

But there is more. What about those who are unaware of history? Here in 21st century America, where instant gratification through the internet and Amazon.com is the norm, “history” seems to be that happened, oh, sometime before 1980. Not that anyone should be faulted for thinking that today’s tweets reflect breaking news of great importance, that literature comes from the pens—no, keyboards—of bestselling authors telling us about ourselves, with maybe better sex and more money, that “luxury” is the most compelling selling point of almost any artifact of consumer demand.

So, there is no shame to be associated with being unaware of how this world came to be, and how the freedom to self-indulge in America and the west has arisen from the triumph of “democracy” over the creeping totalitarianism of the 1930s. That was, after all, such a long time ago. And it could never happen here.

So it’s not particularly relevant to the modern world that Adolph Hitler and Joseph Stalin came to power through the ordinary democratic process of their respective nations. Each were confirmed in their first ascent to power through by election. They consolidated that power through by appealing through their public personae to the basic fears of the electorate: fear of outsiders taking over what was rightfully theirs, fear of an outside world over which they had no control, fear of an overwhelming chaos overtaking the ordered society that seemed to exist only within their national borders.

But notice this, if you will. Each of these men, once in power, acted quickly to consolidate that power, by extending it where it had no right, to see if anyone seriously objected. And when no one did, they extended it still further, using the military to overtake objectives to which they had no right. And when no one seriously objected, they reached further.

No one objected. Not even in the homeland. And as these dictators’ greed for power grew to monstrous proportions, the world in the end was enveloped in total war.

“It can’t happen here.” Oh, yes it can.

The American political process unfolding today is ample proof that fear and ignorance apparently can overrule common sense. The supreme court has shown itself quite willing to cede power to those who most stridently claim it. The Constitution—to some the most holy of modern documents, to others merely a bunch of articles and amendments—can be overridden more easily than you would think, in the context of a war.

In the context of a war woven out of fear. Fear of outsiders, and admiration for despots.

For those who think it can’t happen here, may I recommend two books:

“In the Garden of Beasts” is an inside view of Hitler’s Germany in the 1930s, before the war started, but after Hitler’s consolidation of power, by that most gifted of modern historians Erik Larsen.

“Last Train from Berlin” by the journalist Howard K. Smith, is a devastating inside look at the collapse of a once-vibrant and democratic society, after the rise of a demagogue has driven his country to destruction.